Should you become vegan in order to become healthier? In a word, No! This came up a couple of times recently and I wanted to talk about the idea that being a vegan is somehow healthier than being an omnivore. Let me be clear in what I am and what I am not saying. I am saying that choosing to follow a vegan diet because it is healthier than the alternatives is a misinformed choice, because it is not inherently healthier. I am not saying that it is wrong to be vegan and I am not saying that you can’t be healthy on a vegan diet. I am not debating what diet you are choosing. I am debating why you are choosing it.
Let’s start with the major category definitions.
Omnivore = Eats all food source categories
Vegetarian = Eats no meat or animal products
Pescetarian= Eats no meat or animal products, but includes fish, mollusks, and crustaceans
Lacto-vegetarian= Eats no meat or animal products, but may include dairy products
Ovo-vegetarian = Eats eggs, but dairy and meat are still restricted
Vegan = Eats only plant sourced foods
So, there are many steps in-between being an omnivore and a vegan. It’s not always an either/or question. The first problem with comparison is that most often people are comparing the worst omnivore (eats fried meat all day and no fruits or veggies) with the best vegan (is careful to get all of the nutrients they are missing by cutting out many food sources). Most individuals on these diets are neither of these extremes.
Some of the most heart healthy diets, such as the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean Diet are omnivorous ones. Some vegan (plant-based) choices are less than healthy, like processed faux meats (actually there are many vegan options that are processed) and sugar.
If you want to choose to be vegan for ethical reasons or even if you just want to try it, great. Go for it, but don’t do it to become healthier. Make sure that you get all the nutrients that you need and may be missing by having cut out food groups. Also, pay particular attention to getting enough complete protein in your day (soy and quinoa are great sources).
If you want to be a healthy omnivore, add more fruits and vegetables into your diet (most Americans don’t eat enough), eat as many whole foods as possible and keep your protein sources lean and cook them in a lean manner.
Ultimately, both an omnivore diet and a vegan diets can be either healthy or not. Being vegan and meeting all of your dietary needs can be difficult, but omnivores have plenty of their own challenges. Of course, in any of these, you can overeat and that can lead to weight gain. So, manage your calories as well.
Good luck in whatever you choose. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.